Ro Tos wears a blue headscarf as she sits in her remote family cottage, retelling her 12-year ordeal as a maid in Saudi Arabia.
Ms Tos, a 28-year-old Khmer Muslim, grew up in Kampong Thom’s Baray district.
At the age of 16, she left the country in hope of working to support her family, but spent 12 years enslaved in Saudi Arabia without pay and cut off from contact with the outside world.
Ms Tos was finally repatriated in August and has now been reunited with her family in Sihanoukville, where they moved in a bid to change their fortunes.
Her rescue came after she posted a video plea on Facebook for help getting home.
In the video, speaking in a mixture of Khmer, Arab and English, she described her situation in harrowing detail.
She said she had arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2005 to be a maid after her mother did a similar thing years prior, but it turned out to be a wholly different experience.
“We were poor, and I wanted to help my brother and sister study, which is why I wanted to find a better paying job abroad,” she explained.
Ms Tos said she changed her name to Sos Sanas, using another family book to leave the country because of her age.
She went to Saudi Arabia accompanied by former Social Affairs Ministry secretary of state Ahmad Yahya, who helped prepare all the paperwork and who allegedly said that the recruitment company would take her salary for the first two months.
She worked as a maid for a first employer for roughly six months, but she said he was shady and quick to criticise her because she could speak neither Arabic nor English.
She then changed employer, but it turned out to be even worse: the man ordered her to do housework without pay, and kept her passport from her, effectively making her a prisoner.
“I cleaned the house, washed clothes, cooked and took care of the kids all day from 8am until 12 am, more than ten hours without any salary. It was very difficult, I had no Khmer friends to contact,” she recalled.
When later asked why she didn’t find a way to escape or get a phone to call her family, she said her employer did not allow her to leave the house alone or to use the phone.
“The employer always locked the door and did not allow me to step out. He gave me a phone to play with, but without a SIM card or internet access. If I were to go out, it was always with him,” she said.
“As a woman, I saw it as dangerous to leave the house. But after ten years, I’d had enough. I could not endure those conditions and call it a life. One day I stole my family book when my employer was out, and ran out to the police for help.”
She asked the police to check the family book for her information, because she did not know where her passport was kept. Her employer was arrested by police, but said he lost her passport.
It was at the police centre that she created Facebook accounts to post her videos, pleading to be allowed to return home.
After the video was posted, the Labour Ministry secretary of state Datuk Othsman Hassan cooperated with the Cambodian embassy in Kuwait to repatriate her.
Ms Tos did not expect to see any of the wages she was owed for ten years of work, but once back home, the Saudi government gave her more than $10,000.
“I was going crazy and was sad thinking I would never go home. But I told myself one day I would leave this country, and it gave me strength. Now I’m home, it feels like a new life,” she said.
Ms Tos’ mother, Lous Nas, 55, said that after time had elapsed without news of her daughter, she filed complaints with authorities and sought help from NGOs, but to no avail.
The concerned mother would print pictures of her daughter and give them to anyone going to Saudi Arabia.
“I never lost faith in finding my lovely daughter. That’s why I printed the photos, but it always failed. I started to fear she was dead, or had a new family preventing her from contacting us,” she said.
One day, a friend of hers showed her a video on a phone: her daughter’s plea for help in Saudi Arabia.
“I could not believe my daughter could come back after being missing for 12 years,” she said.
In the meantime, Mr Hassan said via Facebook that he was closely collaborating with the Cambodian embassy in Kuwait so that Ms Tos could return to the kingdom quickly.
“Cambodian workers wishing to work abroad must apply through a company holding a licence from the Ministry of Labour. If we know the company, in case of a problem, it is easier to intervene,” he explained.
Mr Yahya, who was one of Ms Tos’ first contacts, lost his position at the Social Affairs Ministry after it was revealed he was behind the recruitment of the maid sent to Saudi Arabia.
Cambodia and Saudi Arabia last year entered an agreement to send workers to Saudi Arabia, but until now no workers have been sent due to both countries still having to agree on decent working conditions.
Moeun Tola, executive director of labour rights NGO Central, said the government could consider sending workers to Saudi Arabia if certain conditions were met.
“The agreement between both countries is not as important as creating a Cambodian embassy in Saudi Arabia. That way, in case of problems, workers can go to the embassy. It is sorely needed, and I worry that Saudi Arabia has seen many cases of women being trafficked,” he added.
Chu Bun Eng, from the National Authority Against Human Trafficking, said Cambodia had sent no workers to Saudi Arabia for ten years.
“So all cases of people going there are illegal, especially under-age workers. In this case, the woman worked more than ten years for no wages. It is a form of labour trafficking,” she said.
It is unclear whether Ms Tos will file a complaint against the company that sent her there, but she is filing a complaint against the Saudis who forced her to work as a modern day slave.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 450 Cambodian workers were assisted to return home from countries including Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, China, Myanmar, Indonesia and Singapore over the first half of the year.